Violence and virtuosity

THE two faces of Dennis Bergkamp. Recently at Highbury, playing for Arsenal against Blackburn Rovers, unperceived by the referee but seen clearly by television, that elegant Dutchman quite clearly stamped an opponent, Nila-Eric Johansson, and must pay the consequences. For his club as well as himself.

On Dutch television, he declared that "it probably looked worse than it was," adding that he'd been frustrated at "not getting the free kick." All well and good, except for the fact that Bergkamp, for all his marvellous gifts, his dazzling feats of skill - each Saturday night on TV you can see the astounding way in which he conjured a goal at Newcastle last season - is a recidivist. There are three expulsions in his Arsenal past. For a double-footed tackle on Paul Bracewell in a game against Sunderland in 1997, for a punch thrown at West Ham's Steve Lomas the following year, for a reckless challenge last January on Jamie Carragher of Liverpool. Worst and perhaps most notorious of all was the foul for which he was never punished: on Sinisa Mihailovic of Yugoslavia in the second round of the 1998 World Cup in France; compounding his initial offence, when the Yugoslav went down, by stamping on his stomach.

Yet, in the subsequent match against Argentina, Bergkamp would score what was arguably the finest individual goal of that World Cup, a miracle of technique when he controlled, on the right, a long diagonal pass from Frank de Boer with great ease, took the ball inside the formidable Roberto Ayale with the sole of his boot, then driving his shot with the same right foot past the keeper, Roa.

In Holland, some explain Bergkamp's contradictory on field character with his emulation of that superb centre forward, Marco van Basten, who, in the old euphemism, could always take care of himself. The difference being, say such observers, that whereas Van Basten could do harm by stealth, Bergkamp lacked the same subtlety.

Bergkamp, however, is merely one example of that strange breed, the brilliant ball player who can suddenly turn aggressive, displaying a strange mixture of violence and virtuosity. Pele, probably the greatest footballer of all time, was, for all his technical brilliance, a classic example of the breed. There was a ruthless Chilean called Cruz who had a broken leg to show for his misdemeanours. Most notably, perhaps, there was the case of the Argentina midfielder, Mesiano.

When the Brazilians, in Sao Paolo, in 1964, played Argentina in a mini tournament, Mesiano was deputed to mark Pele. This he did with ferocity, until Pele, goaded beyond restraining, butted him in the face and broke his nose. The consequences were unusual. Pele, overcome by remorse, played little part in the rest of the game. Mesiano went off, Telch came on as substitute, scored twice and the Brazilians were beaten.

You would hardly have expected similar moments from such renowned gentlemen of the game as Giampiero Boniperti and Roberto Bettega, each of whom first excelled as players with Juventus and Italy then became major executives of the club.

Long ago in Rome I watched Lazio, coached by the little Yorkshireman George Raynor, very much underdogs, play Juventus at the Olympic Stadium. Raynor had assigned a stocky Swede called Sugge Lofgren as his "G Man" to mark Boniperti. Eventually "Boni," exasperated, felled him with an elbow to the stomach. At once the tough Lazio left half Sassi felled Boniperti with an elbow to the jaw. The Lazio right back Antonazzi rushed forward to intervene, to be knocked flat in his turn by the elbow of the big Juve centre back Rino Ferrerio. Bodies everywhere.

Years later, at Highbury, where Arsenal played Juventus in a European tie, Bettega, smoothest of strikers, committed a gratuitous and painful foul on the Arsenal centre back David O'Leary, crippling him in the process. O'Leary said afterwards that he was truly surprised to be treated thus by such a player.

Then what of Paul Gascoigne, one of the most extraordinary talents produced by English football since the last War? A player of supreme finesse, a formidable right foot, and the divine ability to make the kind of pass that no one had anticipated? Gazza put himself out of the game for well over a year with a truly appalling foul on Nottingham Forest's right back Charles in the 1991 FA Cup Final at Wembley. It could well have had equally drastic consequences for Charles, in the event it was Gascoigne who tore knee ligaments. Subsequently, playing for Middlesbrough, he attempted to elbow an opponent in the face but succeeded only in dislocating his own arm; an injury, which would once more keep him out of the game for months.

Gianluca Vialli was renowned as one of the finest, most technically accomplished strikers in the world for many years; at Sampdoria, Juventus and Chelsea, not to mention with Italy for whom he scored memorable goals. Yet, here too there was what the Scots called a "red mist" tendency. His career was punctuated by explosive moments: such as when immediately after Italy, in 1988, had played Luxemburg away, he rolled around the floor of the tunnel, grappling with the Luxemburg centre back Weis, whose abrasive methods he hadn't appreciated.

Another Italian, famed in English football, Paolo Di Canio, makes no secrets in his autobiography of his periodic outbursts of rage. Pushing a referee to the ground at Hillsborough cost him dear, but he has also described violent confrontations with managers Giovanni Trapattoni at Juventus, Fabio Capello at Milan and Ron Atkinson at Sheffield Wednesday. Yet on the field Di Canio can do sublimely spectacular things, feats of sleight of foot and bright imagination.

Much the same can be said, in spades, of one of the most gifted but ferocious Brazilians of his day, Edmundo, nicknamed with some reason The Animal. Time after time, with club after club, not to mention the national team he has sinned and been forgiven. When he struck an opponent Cristaldo in a Copa America game on the heights of La Paz, against Colombia, his manager Mario Zagallo said he needed psychiatry and dropped him, but he'd be back. At Vasco da Gama, he came to blows with teammate Juninho, a brawl, which continued when they took the field. Edmilson Santana has even tried to exorcise him. But neither his violence nor his remarkable ball playing talents seems to have been affected.